Audiophiles with budget restrictions (most of us, I imagine) could be forgiven for feeling we're afterthoughts to most manufacturers. Even though we probably keep most companies in business by buying their "entry-" or mid-level products, we're always hearing about products designed "without compromise." Waiter, could you bring the reality check, please?
No, folks, vinyl is not dead. And even though my colleague Mikey Fremer is beginning to sound like a broken record, the little guy is right: when it comes to the sound on offer, CD still doesn't come close. There are more turntables, phono cartridges, and tonearms on the market today than ever before. Moreover, with companies like Classic Records, Analogue Productions, and Mosaic offering a steady stream of ultra-high-quality reissues, there seems to be an increasing supply of quality vinyl at reasonable prices.
Some of the most innovative thinking on hybrid circuit design these days seems to come from Russian designers. As a group, they are technically very well educated, pragmatic, and unfettered by American high-end didacticism.
The Krell KRC-2 can be regarded as a remote-controlled successor to Krell's successful KSL preamplifier of a few years back. The outboard Krell Phono Equalizer (KPE) is a separate box powered from the KRC-2. Priced at $850, it contains a printed circuit board very similar, in fact, to the $499 unit that can be fitted within the KRC. The KPE and KRC phono stages are well-designed universal units; if someone has the need for a stand-alone phono equalizer of Krell KRC standard, a separate power supply may be purchased for the KPE. It is also an advantage to be able to locate the KPE head amplifier in a hum-free zone near the LP turntable.
Just as the Trappist Monks of Digital Audio are once again grabbing at the bellpulls to ring the death knell of analog, another fine piece of gear pops up dedicated exclusively to LP playback: the American Hybrid Technology Phono Stage. To one of the Analog Committed, this is good news. That the unit sounds as wonderful as it does is even better news. Anything else? Pull up a pew, Brother.
What's this? A review of a $3000 moving-coil step-up transformer in this digital day and age? Yep. Although the market for such a product is small, the fact that the Expressive Technologies SU-1 step-up transformer enters previously uncharted state-of-the-art territory warrants these pages of editorial space. Furthermore, LP playback appears to be alive and well at the upper end of the high-end spectrum, a market segment addressed by the SU-1 (footnote 1).
Thomas Alva Edison may have had a fully equipped laboratory, with a team of assistants slaving every day over ideas to be adopted when ripe as those of the great inventor, but the image of American ingenuity which rings true to me is of the lone tinkerer, working alone and mixing a generous dose of good ol' Yankee know-how with the sweat of his browa lot of it. These days, with the faithful PC and a hardworking CAD program at his side to do the math, the lone tinkerer seems to be thicker on the ground than ever, to judge by the humongous numbers of small companies selling high-end hi-fi components as revealed in Stereophile's readership survey (see p.5). Whether these loners will ever rise above their origins depends, among many other things, on their ideas being truly worthwhile.
Few people in the audio business would deny that John Curl is an audio design genius—arguably the greatest one of our generation. He designed and built the electronics for Mobile Fidelity's SuperMaster and David Wilson's (of Wilson Audio) UltraMaster tape recorders, two of the three best analog recorders in the world. (The other is Keith Johnson's home-brew unit.) He designed the JC-1 head amp and JC-2 preamplifier sold under the Mark Levinson name some years ago. He designed head amps for SOTA, Michaelson & Austin (TVA), and has done consulting work for more high-end companies than you can shake a stick at.